Understanding Gothic Revival Architecture

By: Susan Zanzonico

Some architectural styles should never change. That's likely what many builders thought in the early 1800s when Gothic architecture was re-discovered. With its tall, looming lines and intricate facades, the style was as relevant and attractive then as it was in its original period between the 12th and 16th century. Many Gothic Revival structures throughout the united states have been carefully preserved, and new examples are always celebrated.

Gothic and Gothic Revival architecture is always easy to identify. Buildings of this style often have high pitched roofs or spires, tall, narrow windows coming to a point at the top, exposed wood structural beams, and cross hatched decorative patterns. Because of its defining characteristics many people have the misconception that all gothic buildings are tall and narrow. In fact, some of the best examples of the style are squared or rectangular structures such as the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and the Saint Clotilde Basilica in Paris - the Gothic tradition in these buildings is as apparent as anywhere else. Gothic skyscrapers built in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly in New York City, may be responsible for the style's most common interpretation. The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburg, is another beautiful example of tall, narrow Gothic architecture.

Gothic architecture is widely accepted to have begun in the 12th century with the Basilique Saint-Denis in Paris, where nearly all of the country's monarchs were buried. The style quickly spread across Europe, and was developed over several centuries, with the last high profile example being the Chapel at Westminister, built by Henry VII in the early 16th century.

Gothic architecture never died out completely, but resurfaced less frequently between the 16th and 19th centuries, while post renaissance styles were popularized. The literature of the 19th century helped as much as anything to revive interest in the middle ages, as authors like Horace Walpole began to celebrate the period in their works.

The Gothic Revival was in full swing by the early 19th century, and came to America in the 1830s. While the style re-emerged largely unchanged, it was now being applied to smaller structures like homes and commercial buildings, as well as in traditional settings. Gothic revival architecture remained popular in the U.S. until the 1870s, although, again, it never vanished completely. Aspects of the Art Nouveau style of the 1930s can be traced to Gothic and Gothic Revival architecture, and occasionally a gifted architect is able to channel the original style in all its unmistakable stark beauty.

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